Sunday, September 16, 2012

Nicholas Kristof on Public Schools and Teachers' Unions

Kristof is one of those guys about whom you can often say, "His heart is in the right place." (And you know what word comes next.)

Kristof attempts to compare today's inner city schools to the era of "separate but equal", premising that argument on the fact that the inner cities (and thus their schools) are dominated by minorities. There are only a few differences... such as the fact that the schools are not actually segregated, there's no parallel set of schools for non-minority children, and for all of their faults many inner city school districts are now generously funded, but why let the facts get in the way of perfectly good hyperbole. In fact, why not kick it up a notch?
America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next.
Really? Well, no, not really.
In fairness, it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states. The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.
So Kristof understands that schools are not "a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next", but are an inadequate tool for consistently breaking children out of a cycle of poverty. (Nor is "providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids" the solution it has at times been hyped to be, at least not as implemented to date, but it sounds good.)

Kristof complains,
I’d be sympathetic if the union focused solely on higher compensation. Teachers need to be much better paid to attract the best college graduates to the nation’s worst schools. But, instead, the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers....

Unfortunately, the union in Chicago is insisting that teachers who are laid off — often for being ineffective — should get priority in new hiring.
That would be a concern if it were true. Except when I follow either of Kristof's links I find that the union's actual concern relates to rehiring teachers who are laid off for reasons outside of their control ("because of school closings, consolidations and turnarounds"). The union's position is not about protecting "weak performers". If Kristof wants to make the case that most or all teachers who are laid off are "weak performers", he is free to try - but it seems reasonable to infer that if he could substantiate his claim he would provide a relevant link.

At the heart of his argument, it appears that Kristof is fundamentally disturbed by the idea that unions would negotiate contracts that benefit workers not only in terms of wages, but also in terms of their working conditions. He wants to get rid of the weakest teachers, spinning glorious outcomes that might be achieved if inner city schools got rid of the bottom 1% or bottom 5% of teachers. I don't think that anybody would deny that job protections negotiated by unions do help some number of people stay in jobs that they're not fit to perform. Within the context of public schools, if administrators are disinterested or are incompetent, teachers who should be terminated instead end up getting tenure and, at that point, it becomes difficult to fire them for their job performance.

Alas, a purge of the type Kristof proposes is not likely to have a significant impact on the performance of schools or students. Even if we get past what Kristof describes as the challenge of figuring out "who is a weak teacher", avoid administrators gaming the system to get rid of teachers they don't like, and overlook the fact that Kristof just told us that ""the main" problem is "poverty", the numbers are too small to have a significant impact.

Fire one teacher in 100 and most kids will proceed through school with the same set of teachers to whom they would have been assigned without the "purge". Eliminate 5%, and you're still having little to no impact on the overall school experience of most children. In early elementary, K-6, most kids have seven teachers. In middle school and high school they may have an aggregate 50 or so teachers. So they're not going to see a huge change in personnel, even if we assume that a teacher at the 94th or 98th percentile of effectiveness is materially superior to the ones who are purged.

Further, if you fire a teacher you need to replace that teacher. While it may be that if you correctly identify the worst teachers, somebody fresh out of a teacher's college who is willing to work in the inner city will be no worse, some will be no better - teachers learn a lot during their first few years on the job, and you're all-but-guaranteeing that you'll have an increased number of new teachers in the system.

It's fair to note also that purging teachers will have no impact on the racial composition of inner city schools. Although Kristof actually repeats the "separate but equal" hyperbole in his conclusion, he does so to be emotionally provocative.

While Kristof opines, "Teaching is so important that it should be like other professions, with high pay and good working conditions", he ignores the push in the opposite direction - to demean teaching as a profession, to strip away benefits, to put downward pressure on compensation. He ignores trends that make teaching less and less attractive to high performing college students, and for that matter less and less attractive to school teachers who have options outside of the profession. When you make teaching less attractive to the best teachers, guess who remains when they leave?

One of the reasons that inner city schools, or the "lousy" schools in "Southern states without strong teachers’ unions" (Kristof should be clear that some of those states have no teachers' unions) seem to have more problem teachers is that they attract a weaker candidate pool. Yes, there are teachers who want to make a difference and, despite strong credentials, seek education jobs in the inner city, but most teachers with options choose not to apply. Alas, those who try to make a difference may find that their efforts are unappreciated, if not impeded by structural problems, inadequate resources and incompetent administrators.

Perhaps Kristof should approach these issues from a slightly different angle. If the problems of the inner cities also exist in impoverished schools in states that offer teachers no job protections, the problem cannot be job protections - unless you presuppose that school administrators in the non-union states are either incompetent or indifferent to the quality of their schools. Also, most schools in this nation manage to do pretty well despite teachers' job protections - if the problem does not lie with the pool of candidates, why are those districts so much better than the inner cities and non-union states at identifying and hiring competent teachers? And if the problem is with the pool of candidates, isn't it fair to assume that the schools are already hiring the best candidates they can identify? why does Kristof believe that purges will result in those schools hiring better teachers?


  1. I feel so guilty reading this--I "jumped ship" from DPS last February and now am with an ISD. Somewhat better pay and 100% better working conditions. (I get my laptop fixed on the spot instead of waiting 2 years). The sad reality is, as you say, that teachers with options are not going to head to inner city schools. I would NEVER tell someone to go to DPS even though I loved that job and I miss it terribly. The person who took my place was my student teacher. She is making many thousands of dollars less than I did, she has twice as many kids on her caseload and she didn't even know where and if she'd be teaching until a few days before school started. If the district can't even tell teachers where they are to report, how can they hope to attract good people?!

    1. "I feel so guilty . . . "


      Unless conditions have improved greatly (and I don’t think they have) you got to worry about your car being broken into and your person assaulted on your way to and from work each day . . .

      As a “special-ed” sort of teach, whose work didn’t help the school raise standardized test scores, you probably got the lowest possible priority in terms of workspace and other resources, etc. (Not true of all schools, but I’ve seen Speech Teachers doing business in hallways and out of hastily converted closets.)

      You had an employer who rewarded your effort by reducing your pay and telling you’d find out “next year” if you had a job for “next year.” (. . . and, oh by the way, if you had a job you found out where you were teaching days if not hours before you were supposed to start work . . .)

      You stuck around long after many/most of us would have bailed (hell, most of us wouldn’t have gone there at all)

      You cared about your students and worked hard - you are still working with special needs kids and helping them.

      So why exactly is it that you feel guilty? Because by definition, if you were still back there helping ‘those’ kids, you wouldn’t be helping “these kids” now. (Or are the ISD kids somehow less worthy of your help?)

      Look, I like to kick somebody when they’re down as well as the next guy (probably more based on my career choices) but I’m just not seeing what you did that warrants it.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.